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UT Team Heading to Spaceport America Cup

Photo of spaceport america teamEducators often talk about encouraging their students to shoot for the stars. For a team of UT students, that saying takes on a different meaning.

“As part of the Spaceport America Cup team, we are launching a rocket that will carry a payload to study microbes at high altitudes and determine how, if at all, life in the upper atmosphere differs from life on the ground,” said Robert Nickel, aerospace engineering major and president of the Student Space Technology Association and leader of UT’s Spaceport America Cup team.

Nickel said that the team hopes to achieve that goal by characterizing bioaerosols suspended in air, such as viruses, bacteria, pollen, and others. With such a complex goal, the team has called upon students with expertise in biology, physics, chemistry, and, of course, engineering.

“We’ve worked on rockets and rocket teams for several years, but we decided to take part in the Spaceport America Cup because we’ll get to implement what we’ve learned on a larger, more complex hybrid rocket,” said Connor Barnhill, also a senior in aerospace engineering. “This competition not only allows us to see how our previous research works for larger-scale engines, but also allows us to collect meaningful, groundbreaking data while also fulfilling the senior design requirement.”

While studies such as theirs are currently available via balloon or motorized aircraft, Nickel said the advantage that the team has is that they can provide more accuracy.

“Current methods face the challenge of maintaining a sterile environment traveling to the target altitude,” Nickel said. “With our rocket, we are able to sterilize the surface of the rocket through transonic or supersonic flight, allowing us to sample only the target microbes.”

First held in 2017, Spaceport America Cup bills itself as “the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition,” with teams coming to New Mexico from across the US and around the world. “This was one of only two competitions that allow you to develop your own engine, but the other one made you pick from one of five payloads, whereas Spaceport America leaves that up to the  teams,” Nickel said. “Because of that, mechanical, aerospace, and electrical engineers can develop the rocket, tracking and recovery electronics, and the rocket engine it flies on, while the payload could be opened up to other disciplines.”

UT’s team will launch three experimental payloads: High Altitude Rocket Assisted Micro-Organism Capture, which serves as the primary payload, an experimental avionics package complete with GPS and telemetry, and a subscale cubesat (a miniature satellite) being developed by one of the team sponsors.

This year’s competition will be held June 18–22 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with the first day serving as a conference, followed by field tests, launches, and an awards ceremony. Last year, more than 1,500 students participated. Sponsors include aviation giants Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, meaning students will get to network with one another while possibly impressing potential employers.